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Longboat Key Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 9 months ago

The price to earn an ‘A’

Sarasota schools want to stay on top, and Manatee schools want to be as good as Sarasota’s schools. You get what you pay for.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

To be sure, the events of the past weeks likely have absorbed many Longboat Key voters: the Parkland massacre; the world-shaking debate over the size of the ballroom in the proposed Colony Beach & Tennis Resort’s redevelopment; or perhaps the degeneration in the election campaign for Longboat Key Town Commission.

So it’s worth reminding voters that come March 20, if you wait to vote that day, you’ll find a question on your ballot regarding public school taxes. Indeed, the Manatee and Sarasota school districts are asking voters separately to approve a 1-mill property tax to help fund teacher salaries and longer school days.

For Longboat Key voters who live in Sarasota County, the vote has pretty much become a renewal ritual. The Sarasota School District is asking voters to extend for another four years the 1-mill levy voters originally approved in 2002.

Since then, in 2006, 2010 and 2014, Sarasota County voters decisively supported the tax. You could say part of the county’s culture and a source of pride is for taxpayers to do almost whatever it takes to ensure the Sarasota School District remains one of the few A-rated districts in the state.

And even though Longboat Key residents have so few students in Sarasota public schools, Longboat property owners who live on the Sarasota side of the Key willingly have played a big role funding the school district each year and supporting the tax. In the current fiscal year, Longboat property owners will be sending $29.2 million to the Sarasota School District.

So it would be futile for anyone even to attempt to make a case against renewing the tax. That’s not to say we’re opposed to extending it. But suffice it to say we have a view of public education that is completely heretical and antithetical to the mainstream: The customers, market competition and freedom of choice should drive it; it should not be over-governed by the state and unions.

As we see it, you could say the extra 1-mill tax in Sarasota County is an affirmation of the old saw “you get what you pay for.” If you want good teachers, you must pay to attract them. That’s what the tax allows Sarasota County to do, and the results show (see the box).

And that’s what Manatee School Superintendent Diana Greene has been trying to get across in Manatee — to be like Sarasota and adopt a new, 1-mill, four-year property tax. 

The tax would generate an estimated $33 million in the first year and would be earmarked toward raising Manatee teachers’ pay and extending the district’s school day a half-hour.

But conventional wisdom says Manatee taxpayers are not embracing the tax. It has a lot working against it.

For one, Manatee’s property-tax rates are already high compared to those in Sarasota County. And Manatee residents who have followed the school district’s travails over the past two decades still are not feeling altogether warm and fuzzy about the district leadership, in spite of the progress it has made over the past four years. 

To the school board’s credit, it turned its negative reserve fund balance to a surplus of more than $25 million. At the same time, the district registered B’s from the state in two of the past three years, compared to all C’s the three previous years.

In spite of this, many Manatee voters are struggling over awarding the district more money when it still has noteworthy issues:

  • State auditors cited nine areas in record keeping that need improvement, the most significant being the district has taken an average of six months after its month-end closing to reconcile its bank accounts.
  • A new software system grew in cost from $9 million to $19 million.

The standard line among the district’s detractors is: Why give the district more money when it can’t handle well what it has?

To be sure, the Manatee school tax is a tough question. But as we see it, the district is in the position of a tattered, undercapitalized company. 

To turn it around, it needs cash — cash to attract new talent and bring its operations up to today’s standards. But when its leaders show lenders and investors its history, the money people recoil: “Come back when you have a better record of success.”

So the spiral down continues. The business scrambles to keep cutting expenses, and management runs 24-7 just to stay even. Turnover is high. 

Here’s what is needed: An investor or investors willing to believe in management, take a risk and provide the business with enough capital so the company can attract the right leadership and talent, focus on running and improving the business and not live in a state of worry and panic.

Such investors don’t just hand over the money, though. They do it with expectations and requirements for oversight and accountability.

This is what the Manatee School District needs if it is ever going to break the barriers of its long, mediocre past. Voters — the investors — need to have faith and take a risk. The school board and superintendent in turn must work harder than ever; prove they are worthy of voters’ trust and faith; and always be transparent and truthful. Manatee’s civic and business leaders also must help however they can. It’s the proverbial all hands on deck to transform this important institution.

This, too, would help: The school board and county commission should work together to find ways to trim their budgets and millage rates to assuage anxious taxpayers.

It’s a four-year risk. But it’s either the investment to improve, or a destiny of continued decline.

We recommend: Yes on the 1-mill school taxes.

Longboat’s ballot questions

Wow. There is a lot to think about on the town’s March 20 ballot.

In addition to committing to property taxes to fund public schools, Longboat Key voters also will be making decisions on three Town Commission seats and two other questions.

Let’s address the two questions; save the commission elections for next week:

Bond referendum: Whether to approve the issuance of bonds up to $5,895,000 and to be paid from property taxes to renovate the town’s fire stations. 

The south station, built in 1986, has outlived its useful life. If the bonds are approved, it would be razed and built new. The north station, built in 1994, is not as outdated, but it needs to be brought into the 21st century as well.

This is the cost of doing business. It’s time to retrofit and build anew for the next 25 to 30 years.

Town charter: The second question — to replace the 2008 Town Charter — has been billed as a cleaning up, simplifying and updating of the charter. And that’s essentially what it is.

One provision no longer would require voters to approve the issuance of revenue bonds for less than $5 million. That may sound alarming; it’s not.

Another provision would eliminate requiring the town to publish a public notice certifying the annual audit of the town finances. The new charter would allow the results to be published only on the town website. Albeit tiny, this would be a step away from public transparency.

Allowing government to control the dissemination of public information on its website will never be a good idea. We’ll sacrifice this update for principle.  

We recommend: Yes on the bond issue. No on the town charter.

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